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Can Isaac Lucas become the new Stephen Larkham?

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Expert
21st January, 2020
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It sounds sensational, doesn’t it? Can Queensland’s Isaac Lucas be the second coming of Stephen Larkham and the saviour of the number 10 position in Australia?

In fact, the title of the article could so easily have been very, very different.

As I combed my way through footage from the 2019 Under 20s World Championship, it was the seamless, silky interaction between the Junior Wallabies outside-half Will Harrison and Lucas from the fullback position, which was truly revealing.

But the science of combinations, the nuts and bolts that work because of their well-oiled sense of relationship, seldom makes the headlines. The lazier route is the one more often taken: to frame up a fast-acting highlight reel, or excite the reader with a screamer of a caption!

Here, we’ll start with the headline but try to work back towards the detail, and the bits and pieces which made the Junior Wallabies such a successful force last year. We’ll examine the potential pros and cons of Lucas’ selection at No.10, and we’ll see both Lucas and Harrison, and New South Wales and Queensland in the equation.

But first, a little scene-setting.

The Wallabies No.10 jersey is up for grabs after the World Cup in Japan. Bernard Foley, Quade Cooper and Christian Lealiifano are gone for good, and Matt Toomua will be 34 years old by the time of next tournament – unlikely to be part of the solution come 2023.

The way is clear for the introduction of new talent, especially with the open mind of a new head coach in Dave Rennie ready to be convinced by the evidence he sees in front of him. Of the existing, but still relatively untried, Super Rugby stock there is Mack Mason at the Waratahs, Andrew Deegan at the Rebels, and Hamish Stewart at the Reds.

Then there are Lucas and Harrison.

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Lucas is the more heralded of the pair, rated the best in an illustrious family of four rugby-playing brothers – Ben, Matt and Tom have all either played Super Rugby or sevens for the national team.

Isaac Lucas of the Reds

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Last season, Lucas played some games at fullback for Queensland in the latter half of the season, and that was the position he occupied for the Junior Wallabies in June.

If he is to step up as the Wallabies’ flyhalf, it will therefore require a Larkham-like transformation. Larkham won his first dozen caps at 15, and it was not until a fateful day in June 1998 that Rod Macqueen saw the future.

Australia thrashed a hapless England – enduring their very own ‘Tour of Hell’ – 76-0 and Macqueen never looked back. With Larkham at outside-half, the scene was set for the Aussie domination of the later ’90s and early 2000s.

Larkham and Lucas are different physical types. Larkham was a sinuous, willowy glider at 6’3 who looked like he might break in half at any moment – but never did. Where Larkham floated just above it, Lucas gains strength from Mother Earth and plays low to the ground – he is sub-6’, squat and compact.

What they share is a playing identity as instinctive footballers who thrive in space. For Larkham, the art of game management had to be learnt. When he first put his mind to playing 10, he had the experience of George Gregan inside him, Tim Horan outside him and Matt Burke behind him. It is much harder to fail with kind of support.

At the under 20s tournament, the decision-making pressure was removed from Lucas’ shoulders by selecting him at fullback, with Harrison (newly signed by the Waratahs) directing the play.

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The combination worked perfectly, with Harrison’s natural left-footed kicking and left-to-right passing game complementing Lucas’ ability to play primarily on the right side of the field.

As a schoolboy, Lucas played for St Joseph’s College Gregory Terrace.

What do you notice about the attacking action in these clips? Lucas is nearly always moving or running to his right, and those are the occasions when the defence is under most duress.

It was the same at the under 20s. Here are some examples from the group matches against Italy and Ireland:

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All of the rugby values you see in these clips are instinctive in quality. In the first example from the game against Italy, all the decisions are made by instinct, with the threats six inches in front of Lucas’ face. There are the quick feet close to the tackler, and the instant and draw-and-offload as the last defender closes in.

In the second instance, it is more a matter of evading tacklers as they come flying at him from all angles. Lucas’ abilities to weave between defenders, stick to the ground and attract high shots, are to the fore.

In the third case, there is a super flat cut-out pass right made on the line, and intuitive support after the break has been made. Isaac Lucas is happiest when he is playing right in the teeth of the defence, and decisions have to be made immediately and without thinking, like a lightning strike.

We might add that Lucas looks like he will be a reliable defender:

With a large Italian winger bearing down with some room in which to move, Lucas gets a solid lick on him and takes him down with no fuss at all.

Lucas’ kicking style is idiosyncratic to say the least. He prefers the pitching wedge to the long iron:

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On a number of occasions over the two games he opted to chip the ball towards space, and given the choice with Harrison alongside him in the backfield, he gave Harrison the opportunity to use his own, far more prodigious left boot:

It was Harrison’s ability to navigate the ship up and down the field which gave the Junior Wallabies their coherence in the tournament, and offered Lucas a platform to display his instinctive brilliance. In particular, Harrison’s natural excellence at running and breaking to his left, or passing off his left hand, allowed Lucas to occupy his favourite station over on the other side of the field:

Summary
Isaac Lucas has made no bones about his desire to play Test football for his country.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s a dream of mine to represent Australia but there is a lot of hard work to do and I have to assert myself and play some good footy,” he was quoted as saying in The Australian.

If, as looks likely from the Reds’ pre-season practice matches and the rumblings on the grapevine, Lucas does start the Super Rugby season at outside-half, there will be some teething problems.

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The requirements of flyhalf and fullback are not the same, even from the playmaking viewpoint. The No.10 is mainly responsible for taking those more cerebral decisions about whether his team can best progress upfield via kick, run or pass.

That is what Stephen Larkham found when he first moved to the halves, but then he had the likes of Gregan, Horan and Burke to support and guide him through the process. That allowed him to develop the game-management brain to partner his instinctive footballing ability.

Lucas won’t enjoy the same luxury at the Reds. He’ll get some talk from James O’Connor and Bryce Hegarty, but there is no experienced 9 inside him and no Samu Kerevi to take the pressure off from 12.

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In 2019, he enjoyed the underestimated guidance of Will Harrison with the Junior Wallabies, and Harrison will certainly be worth the watch in the Sky Blue. Between them, Harrison and Lucas played the lefty-righty combination for all it was worth at the World Cup, and they played it very well indeed.

Can Dave Rennie unearth the right combinations which will allow Lucas to develop and function effectively at the same time? Will he play him at 10 or at 15?

Forget Larkham and a past long gone-by, ask the questions that matter. Forget the tagline, and go for the substance.